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Malawi: a ticket to hope, graduation of online university students in Dzaleka refugee camp

Only a few years ago, the idea of offering higher education in refugee camps would have been considered almost inconceivable. Yet today the graduation ceremony in Dzaleka camp has become an annual event. This occasion, said Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) International Director, Peter Balleis SJ, was as a celebration of ‘normality’.

The word, ‘Dzaleka’, can loosely translated as “you must be reformed” or “I repent”. Unsurprising as the place was previously used as high security prison, Fr Balleis continued. What is incredible is “today we have transformed that meaning, and we are expanding the programme to Chad and the Philippines.”

In late September, the second cohort of students in Dzaleka camps received their diplomas in Liberal Arts, business and education at the teacher training college in the camp, 50km from Lilongwe, the capital of Malawi.

This year’s number of graduates in Dzaleka, at 18, was slightly less than the 23 who graduated in 2013. However, the graduates from four African countries – Burundi, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda – included for the first time a local Malawian, three women and a special needs student.

All the graduates were given a ticket to hope again, said Malawian graduate John Chisewu. Opening up online higher education courses to Malawians, he added, promoted the development of inter-community relationships that could reduce tensions and further promote social cohesion. Looking to the future development of the programme, Mr Chisewu suggested the diploma course be extended to other subjects, such as social work and basic healthcare.

Expanding opportunity. The three-year pilot Diploma programme was made available to refugees living in camps in Kakuma (Kenya) and Dzaleka (Malawi), and urban refugees in Amman (Jordan). The first group in Jordan will graduate in 2015. The programme was subsequently expanded to a camp in Mae Hong Son (Thailand) and to Herat (Afghanistan) and is expected to open in Chad and Sri Lanka within the next 12 months.

The JRS programme, Jesuit Commons: Higher Education at the Margins (JC:HEM), also offers a number of three-to-six-month certificate courses, known as Community Service Learning Tracks (CSLT). The certificate courses – counselling, special needs education, English as a second language, and mother and child healthcare – are more practically oriented and directly applicable to the immediate environment of the students. To date, nearly 700 students have already completed CSLT courses and another 250 are currently registered.

In the words of the former president of Tanzania, Julius Nyerere, “those who get an education have a higher obligation to community.” Dr Mary McFarland, the JC:HEM International Director, reminded the graduates of the responsibility placed on their shoulders. The Jesuit education, she said, calls the graduates to be “men and women for others.” The perseverance needed to complete a higher education empowers the students to transform their lives and the world, she underlined.

On behalf of Regis University, the conferring Jesuit university in the USA, the president, John Fitzgibbons SJ, welcomed the new graduates into the alumni family. He called each of the graduates to be a ‘Regis Person’ – someone who goes beyond expectations, who extends himself or herself for others.

The guest of honour, Mr Beston Chisamile, national Commissioner for Refugees at the Ministry of Home Affairs, commended the resolve of those working in JC:HEM. JRS have contributed greatly to the socio-economic development of the area, Commissioner Chisamile continued, urging other NGOs to follow its example. JRS Malawi began as an implementing partner of the UN refugee agency (UNHCR), providing education services to refugees and Malawians alike in 2002.

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